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The 19th Century bequeathed us four immediately recognizable, vibrant and  enduring fictional icons: Shelley's Frankenstein; Stoker's Dracula;  Melville's Moby Dick (& Ahab); and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.  Each of them has, I fear, suffered a horrible fate: they are so familiar to us, in their many modern incarnations & imitations, that too few people return to the original texts.  This may be particularly true of Frankenstein, whose portrayals have been so frivolous and distorted.  In fact, in addition to being written in luxuriant gothic prose, the original novel is one of the most profound meditations on Man and his purpose and relation to God that has exists in our literature.

Victor Frankenstein is a young man of Geneva who is fascinated by the sciences and the secrets of  life and death:

  My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my
  temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager
  desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately.  I confess that
  neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the
  politics of various states possessed attractions for me.  It was the secrets of
  heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward
  substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man
  that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in
  its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

While at University in Ingolstadt, his life course is set when he hears a professor lecture on modern chemistry:

  'The ancient teachers of this science,'said he, 'promised impossibilities and
  performed nothing.  The modern masters promise very little; they know that
  metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.  But these
  philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to
  pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles.  They
  penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her
  hiding-places.  They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood
  circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe.  They have acquired new and
  almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heavens, mimic the
  earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.'

  Such were the professor's words--rather let me say such were the words of the
  fate--enounced to destroy me.

Victor goes on to discover, through the study of chemistry, the secret of bringing dead flesh to life.  Inevitably he tests his discovery and of viewing his creation cries:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?  His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

And so, repelled by the mere appearance, the inevitable imperfection, of his work, Frankenstein  rejects the creature utterly.  However, unlike the mute stupid monster of the movies, Shelley's monster is articulate and sensitive and longs for companionship, but all of humankind reacts to him with horror.  And so he demands that Frankenstein build him a mate.  When Frankenstein refuses to provide him with a companion, the creature resolves to destroy those who Frankenstein loves.

Finally, Frankenstein determines that he must destroy the creature and pursues him into the frozen wastes of the North.

It all makes for a rousing adventure, but there is much more here.  Frankenstein, through his work,  has attempted to become a god, but his creation is a horrible disappointment & so, is banished from him.  Meanwhile, his flawed creation, filled with ineffable longing and confusion, wanders in exile seeking the meaning of his existence.  And what is the impulse that he settles upon, but another act of creation; a mate must be created for him.  The Biblical parallels are obvious, but they work on us subtly as we read the novel.  In the end, the uncontrollable urge to create, to imitate God, stands revealed as Man's driving force.  And the inevitable disappointment of the creator in his creation, is revealed as the serpent in the garden.

If you've never read this book, read it now.  If you've read it before, read it again.


Grade: (A+)


Mary Shelley Links:

    -ESSAY: How Reading and the Thirst for Knowledge is at the Heart of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Heather Cass White on the Almost Sinful Allure of Self-Enlightenment (Heather Cass White, August 23, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The Libertarian History of Science Fiction (Jordan Alexander Hill, 6/20/20, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: Frankenstein: A postmodern novel written long before modernism: It’s impossible to be sure what really happens in the text of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece (Lucy Sweeney Byrne, 9/26/20, Irish Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Frankenstein (etext)
    -Mary Shelley & Frankenstein
    -Discovery Channel School: Frankenstein
    -Literary Research Guide: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 - 1851)
    -Mary Shelley (Most Web)
    -REVIEW : of Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour (David Crane, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Running scared of religion: Shelley’s story prompts us to consider the relationship between The Almighty and man (Anne McElvoy, 5/28/20, The Critic)
    -REVIEW : of  Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour (VICTORIA WHITE, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Miranda Seymour's Mary Shelley (Budge Burgess, Spike)
    -REVIEW : of Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life by Janet Todd (Susan Eilenberg, London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : NIGHT OF OUR GHASTLY LONGINGS (George Stade, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of 'Mary Shelley' by Miranda Seymour (John Sutherland, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour (David Crane, Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Mary Shelley By Miranda Seymour (PAUL MARX, Houston Chronicle )